A list of films that make us wonder how long filmmakers should spend on location to earn the right to film others.
Curated by Prof. Reiko Tahara.
Group 1) Living with the subjects clan
Nanook of the North.
Robert Flaherty, 1929, 79min., 35mm B&W, non-sync sound, USA.
For better or worse, almost all of the questions regarding documentary ethics and traditions start with this film. Flaherty spent 67months in total (five years and seven months) in the Canadian Arctic on five expedition and shooting trips between 1910 and 1921 to complete the first and stunning independent documentary feature, Nanook of the North. Allakariallak, an Inuk who played Nanook, was casted during the Port Harrison trip sponsored by a French fur company Revillon Fréres, which lasted for 12 month from 1920-21. There is no record of Flaherty knowing Allakariallak before this trip. He did not keep in touch with Allakariallak after the completion. He died two years after the completion.
The Battle Front for the Liberation of Japan –Summer in Sanrizuka.
Shinsuke Ogawa, 1968, 95min, 16mm B&W, non-sync sound, Japan
Shinsuke Ogawa, the legendary founder of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, was the father of the “living with subjects” clan in Japan. This film is the first in a series of seven films he and his collective (Ogawa Pro) made of the farmers’ struggles between 1968-1973 against the construction of Narita International airport (remember the scenes in Sans Soleil?). This film captures the beginning of their struggle from April to July 1968 after Japan’s LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) government railroaded the Airport Bill through in the name of Japan’s “internationalization,” without consulting the landowners and farmers in the area. It shows how the leftist student movement of the ‘60s (against the US-Japan Security Treaty, the US military’s possession of the islands of Okinawa and their use during the Vietnam War, and over the Japanese government’s obsequious attitude toward the US) initially led the farmers but later on the farmers themselves went through a gradual political awakening and started arming themselves with farm tools.
Ogawa Pro lived with the farmers for five years but never helped them with their farming believing that it would compromise the filmmaker-subject relationship. According to a former Ogawa Pro staff member, Ogawa’s shooting strategy changed between this film and the second film of the series from “offense” to “stand-by,” and many members left the group as a result. In the “offense” mode, filmmakers aggressively plan for the shoots after confirming the subjects’ action schedule. In his later Sanrizuka films, the filmmakers remained on “stand-by” while living in the same farming community, and employed slower, longer takes in an effort to capture a sense of the farmers’ local time. For now, however, this one is the only Ogawa film available on DVD (despite the number of books and articles written about him). Ogawa Pro was always financially unstable and accumulated debts. After 1973, they moved to Yamagata, started farming themselves while continuing to produce documentaries about tiny farming villages and towns inhabited by day laborers. In 2000, Barbara Hammer made “Devotion,” a film created as a tribute to Ogawa Pro.
Two Laws. Alessandro Cavadini & Carolyn Strachan, Australia/New Zealand, 1981, 138min., 16mm B&W, DVD produced by Jill Godmilow in 2007,
Jill introduced this film to me and it was fun to share it in a class this semester which included young guests from Holland. In 1979, Alessandro Cavadini and Carolyn Strachan, an Australian and Italian filmmaker team, accepted an invitation from the Aboriginal people of Borroloola (located in the Gulf area of the Northern Territory of Australia) to help them tell their story/history through film. The filmmakers resisted the temptation to take out their camera on the first night during the dance ceremony, and waited to discuss and agree on the filming strategy with the subjects. They lived with the subject community, learned and followed the rules of kinship, and in return, screened many films so that the subjects could make informed decisions about their own story-telling method. The end result is an open invitation for all audiences (their targeted audiences were all struggling indigenous peoples and white people) to sit with them and attend village meetings, look at various reenacted scenes from their tribal history (for which the camera didn’t exist), and hear their testimonies about the issue of land rights. The filmmakers and the subjects jointly chose to use a 10mm lens to include all action in one frame.
Solanas and Getino, in their seminal article “Toward a Third Cinema,” defined the concept of a Third Cinema as “films that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs” or “films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the System.” Faye Ginsburg talks in a special feature on the DVD about indigenous people from various countries visiting the Center for Media, Culture, and History at NYU (which she directs) and excitedly requesting to view Two Laws. It is a legendary film among the indigenous communities, no matter how uncomfortable it may make the Western audiences. It makes us realize how our eyes have been unconsciously calibrated by the Western mode of production and consumption. Breaking the “A-B-C of documentary” (borrowing Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s words) in both our production and consumption practices could be the only way to shift the power dynamics. Will you take their invitation? Two Laws / Kanymarda Yuwa: Interview
OK, now fast-forward to the present time.
Episode of the Sea
Van Brummelen and De Haan, and the inhabitants of Urk, 35mm, B&W, transferred to 4K DCP and HD, 63 min., 2014, The Netherlands
I saw this in this year’s Doc Fortnight at MoMa. I hope it will be shown again in NYC. It is a two-year collaboration between filmmakers and the fishing community of Urk, in the Netherlands. When the Dutch government drained their inland sea decades ago to increase its arable lands, the island of Urk, an island in mid sea, became farmland. Unable to give up their fishing lifestyle, Urk fishermen began traveling far to the North Sea, and found a way to continue to fish, often through buying licenses from other nations. But gradually and inevitably, the community is losing jobs due to the influx of cheaper immigrant laborers and tighter regulations.
The filmmakers had a residency opportunity in Urk, but when they got there, their grant was withdrawn due to a massive government budget cut. Instead of giving up, the filmmakers decided to film Urk, a dying fishing village, in a dying film format: 35mm, B&W. For a year, the filmmakers visited Urk every weekend. They talked to the residents, showed various films, and gained trust. They began shooting fishing scenes (they are amazingly static–a curious contrast with the dizzy fishing scenes in Raw Herring, a film by another Dutch filmmaker Lenard Retel Helmrich), and eventually had Urk residents engage in staged conversation sessions in an intentionally unnatural style. Urk is a closed and deeply religious community with their own language, and it is interesting to see how the lefty filmmakers collaborated with this conservative Christian community and ended up making a semi-Brechtian piece. However, how much the residents were aware of what this style indicated is unknown, and it did feel for me that the film served the intellectual art community rather than the people who are really concerned about and trying to do something for this dying fishing community.
Of Men and War
Laurent Bécue-Renard, 142min, HD, Color, 2014, France/Switzerland/USA
This is a powerful new documentary by a French filmmaker about a group of American veterans with PTSD being treated at the Pathway Home, America’s only comprehensive treatment center for veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The center was opened in 2008 by Fred Gusman, a therapist with 30 years of experience in treating Vietnam veterans with PTSD. The French director is interested in the effect of war on human beings. His previous film, Living Afterwards: Words of Women, was about women survivors in Bosnia who lost their husbands, brothers, and fathers in the Bosnian War, and about psychotherapists in a group called Vive Zene who helped them. It was completed in 2001 and won the Peace Film Award at Berlin.
For Of Men and War, he spent 10 years. For three years, he researched, often in touch with Fred Gusman. When the film crew (a two-man crew of the director and cameraman) arrived at the Pathway Home, they attended therapy meetings and lived with the veterans for five months without ever shooting a scene. By the time they picked up the camera, the veterans trusted them, and they had planned the shoot. Booming and aiming microphones at them was a no-no since they could remind the veterans of guns and weapons. So they hung wireless mics from the ceiling to capture every sound in the group therapy room. Gusman rarely appears in the frame –we sometimes see his back in the foreground of the frame, as if we are seeing through his pov. The film crew filmed for three years between 2010-2013. Some patients “graduated” but there is no ending or closure to their varied stories.
The film was a hit at Cannes last year, and had a successful theatrical run in France. MoMa’s Doc Fortnight was their US premiere, and the packed audience didn’t want to leave the theatre for a long time after the screening. They hope to have a theatrical run in the US, so please look for NY screenings. But in the meantime, here is the website for the Pathway Home. It is entirely run by donations (no governmental funding). It’s participating in Amazon Smile so you can send some money to them every time you shop. A veteran appearing in the film was present at the screening and expressed his desire to show this film to his senior officials at the military so that they can understand more about PTSD, which has been mainly dismissed as mental weakness in the US military.
Group 2) No bonding with the subject clan
Fred Wiseman typically spends four to six weeks on location, and spends a year or more for editing. The 85-year-old legendary filmmaker has made 41 films with this same method since his shocking directorial debut with Titicut Follies in 1967. He does not like to research before the shoot because he does not like to have any preconceptions when he films. He is known for not keeping in touch with the people appearing in his films. His subjects are mainly public institutions (hospitals, schools, museums, municipalities etc) run with tax –payer funds. For Belfast, Maine (1999), he shot 110hours and “only used 4 hours – near nothing.”1 For At Berkeley (2013), he shot 250 hours and only used four hours as well. His longest film is Near Death (1989) and it was six hours. At Berkeley includes a long one-take scene in a classroom: “That class was two hours long, it’s one of the longest sequences in any of my films, 22 minutes, a reduction of 2 hours to 22 minutes. You have to edit as if it took place the way you’re seeing it.”2 Since he doesn’t interview or use narration, the duration of the scenes are often necessary to create the contexts.
So instead of spending a significant amount of time to establish trust with the subjects, he spends long hours shooting to “observe” and “research,” and spends many months editing to “investigate” and “report” the findings to the American public from his personal point of view (similar to the Flaherty method, actually). As for the filmmaker-subject relationship, he says: “I think I have an obligation, to the people who have consented to be in the film, to make a film that is fair to their experience… I do feel that when I cut a sequence, I have an obligation to the people who are in it, to cut it so that it fairly represents what I felt was going on at the time, in the original event.” Hunter library has 2 DVDs of his work: Public Housing, and La danse le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, and NYPL carries many of his work on VHS.
Where Are You Taking Me?
Kimi Takesue, 72min, HD, Color, 2011, Uganda/the Netherlands
This film was made as part of a special African film project commissioned by the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Rotterdam was interested in learning about the indie filmmaking situation in Africa outside of the few countries with existing film industries (mostly former French colonies). They sent ten Rotterdam-alum filmmakers to those countries to produce one work each while getting to know the local filmmakers. Kimi chose Uganda for the relative safety of its capital Kampala. She knew the images of Uganda from the news and other media associated with child soldier stories and devastating civil war. She wanted to see what other kind of images exist in Uganda.
With a deep interest in cross-cultural encounters, Kimi set out to Uganda determined to remain open for happenings and encounters and explored “the process of ‘looking’ cross-culturally and the interplay between the observer and the observed.”4 Her film is an interesting experience of being fed saturated beautiful colors and contemporary exotic images in unexpected places such as a wedding ceremony or a pan-African women’s weight-lifting competition, while constantly being reminded of our own gaze as voyeurs. She put her camera on the ground on a street corner and let us observe for a long time people from different walks of life passing by. People often notice the camera, look into it, and ask “Where are you taking me?” Of course she is influenced by Reassemblage and aware of the documentary world’s exhaustive debate over shooting/stealing the images of other. In an interview with the author, she expressed that too much thinking of the theoretical stuff sometimes paralyzes us. Instead, just pick up the camera and start shooting. Whether you choose to live with your subjects or only spend a short time with them, a humble mind as a shooter might be our best preparation. Watch the trailer here